Old Electrical Panels Can Increase Your Risk of Fire

Staff MgmtElectrical

However important they are, electrical panels are often forgotten by homeowners simply because they are hidden away in the garage or backyard, and just like the old saying goes, out of sight out of mind. It is important to know at least a few key facts about your breaker box, like when they need to be replaced and how to maintain them, to ensure the safety of your home. Read on to get the full scoop on breaker panels so you can add them to your yearly home maintenance checklist.

The first thing to check when evaluating the quality of your breaker panel is the material of its components. Many homes in Houston have panels that are made out of aluminum because they are cheaper to install and only have to offer a 1-year warranty.

“A big factor that we have to deal with in Houston is the humidity, and in terms of panels, humidity destroys aluminum and causes them to corrode a lot faster than they should,” said John Moore Services Quality Control Specialist Mike Pace. “When you get that corrosion buildup it gets all over the panels and even gets inside parts you can’t see. It’s a big problem because it causes the breaker to trip slower than it should, and a slower reaction time from the breaker means you are at a greater risk for a fire.”

Having your panels upgraded to copper is a great alternative because copper reacts better with the humidity. Also, as aluminum heats up, it is constantly expanding and contracting which changes its chemical make-up overtime. Copper will always stay copper no matter how many times it heats up, and will typically never have to be replaced with proper care. Copper panels also come with a lifetime warranty.

To make sure your panel is legal and not outdated, it’s important to check and see if it is UL listed. Underwriter Laboratories is a safety consulting and certification company that tests products of all kinds to make sure they are safe for the public. They have deemed several brands of panels unsafe to be installed in homes in the United States that unfortunately, many Houston homes have. If you have any of the following brands of panels in your home, it’s important to get an upgrade immediately.

Federal Pacific: From 1950-1980 Federal Pacific manufactured most of the circuit breaker panels installed in homes. This brand has been rated the number one cause of electrical fires in the United States. They work fine until the occurrence of a short circuit, then they start to overheat and become fire hazards. The reason behind this is that the company uses obsolete technologies and have no thermal overloads, which means they do not trip when they are supposed to.

“The brand Federal Pacific is really dangerous because it doesn’t trip in time,” said Pace. “Say a plug goes bad, it melts or catches fire, once it shorts out it’s supposed to trip the breaker to shut off the power. If that breaker doesn’t shut off then the melting continues and it overheats the breaker too. Now you have two dangerous points instead of one.”

Zinsco, Sylvania, and Bryant: These three brands are grouped together because they are similar in the way they malfunction. They are known for their aluminum parts that burn behind the breaker, which is a serious fire hazard.

Breakers trip for a variety of reasons like having too many items plugged into one socket at the same time, a power surge, or even a lightning strike. They can also trip if something shorts out, such as a rodent chewing on electrical wires in the attic. But did you know that, according to manufacturers, if your breaker trips even one time it should be replaced?

“A lot of people have one breaker they overload all the time that constantly trips,” said Pace. “The more times you trip the breaker the weaker the tripping mechanism becomes and the less efficient it is. I usually tell my customers that if the same breaker has tripped multiple times, by multiple I mean five or six, or if it has overheated then it should be replaced. That way you never have to question its reliability.”

You may also need an electrical panel upgrade or rework if you are constantly having work done on your AC or heating system. The majority of HVAC problems have to do with electrical issues because an AC unit is the largest draw on the electrical system. If you have an AC system that fails due to an outdated panel, you are going to have a very dangerous situation on your hands, such as drawing too much power on a wire that doesn’t trip, a melted breaker or wire, along with multiple fire hazards. Most people wouldn’t think a problem with their air conditioner has to do with their electrical panel, but it happens all the time and is important to remember.

“To keep serious problems from happening with your breakers and to help keep them in better shape, it’s important to exercise them once a year,” said Pace. “Turning them all off and turning them on again one at a time is a good thing to do to keep them in shape. It’s like a car that’s sitting in a garage that you have to move from time to time to keep it running. Moving the components of your panel ensures that everything is working and can also help you to determine if a component has gone bad.”

As you can see, breaker panels are vital to the home and should be treated and maintained with care. And remember, from small problems like replacing a circuit breaker, to larger problems like re-wiring your electrical system, John Moore Services is only a call away with trained and certified electrical technicians ready to help.